TLS – Shakespeare at the Tabard

TLS

The Times Literary Supplement

The leading international forum for literary culture

Published: 24 September 2014

The Bard at the Tabard

Did Shakespeare, Jonson and their ‘roystering associates’ drink at the inn where Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered? An intriguing discovery suggests they did

Copyright © The Times Literary Supplement Limited 2014.
The Times Literary Supplement Limited: 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1 9GF.
Registered in England. Company registration number: 935240. VAT no: GB 243 8054 69.


TLS

The Times Literary Supplement

The leading international forum for literary culture


 

The Bard at the Tabard

MARTHA CARLIN

Did Shakespeare, Jonson and their ‘roystering associates’ drink at the inn where Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered? An intriguing discovery suggests they did

Published: 24 September 2014

Patrick Stewart and Richard McCabe as Shakespeare and Jonson, from Edward Bond’s play Bingo Photograph: donald@photostage.co.uk

A new glimpse of Shakespeare and his circle appears in a description of the London borough of Southwark, written around 1643 by an anonymous antiquary, and now part of a portfolio of twenty-seven loose sheets of paper in Edinburgh University Library (MS La. II 422/211). The recto sides of these pages contain manuscript notes, in fair copy, described as “Some notes for my Perambulation in and round ye Citye of London for six miles and Remnants of divers worthie things and men”.

The notes chiefly concern Southwark and Hackney, and derive partly from Anthony Munday’s edition (1633) of John Stow’s Survey of London. There is also much material that appears to be otherwise unrecorded, however, and the author announces that his survey is intended

“only to notice those places and things that have been passed by or littled [sic] mentiond [sic] by those greate Antiquaries that have written of this noble Citye and ye which places are fast ruining as the Tabard Inne and ye many houses of Priesthood old Monuments Halls Palaces and Houses of its greate Citizens and Lords and may be useful to searchers of Antiquitye in time to come.”

In Southwark, he notes, there are “many ancient places yet to be seen and fast falling in ruine and not noticed by others”: not only the priory of St Mary Overy and the Bishop of Winchester’s palace, but “ye old House of ye Poet Gower”, London Bridge and “those Stews so long a source of profitt to ye Maiers of London and Bishopps of Winchester ye Bear Gardens and Playes”. Each September the Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen of London paid an official visit to Southwark Fair, and the antiquary describes how they used the Tabard inn in the high street as their headquarters, concluding with the following remarkable passage:

“Ye Tabard I find to have been ye resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and ye rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in ye lange room they have cut their names on ye Pannels.”

Shakespeare (1564–1616) and Burbage (1568–1619) had been associates since the 1580s, and members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men since the 1590s; Jonson (1572–1637) began to write for the company in 1598. The following year, the company transferred its operations from Shoreditch to the new Globe on Bankside in Southwark. In 1603, King James became the company’s patron, and Lawrence Fletcher (d. 1608), an actor who had come to London in the royal entourage, became a member of the company now renamed the King’s Men.

Shakespeare is thought by some scholars to have lived near the Globe at the end of the 1590s. (This is suggested by annotations to tax records from his previous residence in the City, but there is no corresponding evidence in the extant records for Southwark.) By 1604, however, he was certainly living in the City, and is not known to have lived in Southwark thereafter. Fletcher settled on Bankside, where he lived from at least 1604 until his death in September 1608. Burbage, the company’s leading actor, lived in Shoreditch, and Jonson in the City, but – if the alleged graffiti were genuinely theirs – they all seemingly enjoyed the hospitality of the Tabard, and commemorated it by carving their names on the panelling of one of the public rooms.

Sir Sander (or Sanders) Duncombe seems unlikely to have been their fellow “roisterer”. Knighted in 1617, and with a reputation, among other things, as a healer (according to John Evelyn’s Diary, when Evelyn’s mother lay mortally ill in 1635, Duncombe tried to save her life with “his celebrated and famous powder”), Duncombe was presumably younger than Shakespeare, Burbage, Jonson and Fletcher, and is not otherwise recorded as their associate. A Justice of the Peace for Middlesex in the early 1640s, he might have carved his name alongside theirs as an act of homage.

The most likely time for Shakespeare and his “roystering associates” to have congregated at the Tabard was probably the decade after the opening of the Globe in 1599. (In 1609, the new indoor theatre at Blackfriars became the preferred theatre of the King’s Men, although they continued to perform at the Globe.) Lawrence Fletcher’s own graffiti certainly would have dated from this period, between his arrival in London in May 1603 and his death. In the following decade, Jonson became a member of a group of men, composed largely of lawyers and politicians, who met at the Mermaid tavern in the City. Shakespeare, however, was not a member of that group, leading some to doubt the credibility of John Aubrey’s and Thomas Fuller’s later accounts of the many lively “wit combates” between Jonson and Shakespeare. Perhaps these exchanges did indeed take place – at the Tabard in Southwark.

The Tabard, celebrated in Shakespeare’s day and after as the inn where Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, stood opposite the sessions house (formerly St Margaret’s Church) on the east side of Southwark’s high street. This was well south of London Bridge and quite some distance from the Bankside theatres, and so would seem an inconvenient place for Shakespeare and his theatrical companions to have met – perhaps they chose it specifically for its association with Chaucer. Unfortunately, the Tabard that they knew was burnt down in the great Southwark fire of 1676. Although rebuilt and restored to use, any earlier remains that might have survived were demolished along with the rest of the inn in 1874–5.

The antiquary’s name does not appear in his notes, but it is clear from them, and from a page of personal reflections dated “November 1643”, that he was an unmarried royalist with an interest in the capital’s medieval monuments. He was acquainted with “Dr Harvey”, and was a friend of the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar (in England from December 28, 1636 until 1644), whose magnificent panorama of London, published in 1647, was taken from the tower of St Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral). These features – and the initials “JE”, which occur on one page – would fit the diarist John Evelyn. The hand of the notes does not appear to match Evelyn’s early or mature hands, however, and Evelyn does not mention the ruinous antiquities of Southwark or Hackney, or a gentlewoman named Mabel Acton, in whom the anonymous antiquary had a romantic interest. Evelyn’s references to Dr William Harvey (1578–1657) date from after Harvey’s death and do not imply a personal acquaintance, and he does not report visiting Southwark Fair until 1660, when he described such sights as dancing monkeys and conjoined twins, not the Mayor’s visit or the Tabard inn. So for now, the author’s identity remains a tantalizing mystery.

Martha Carlin is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She is the author of Medieval Southwark, 1996, and, most recently, the co-author, with David Crouch, of Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English society, 1200–1250, which was published last year. She discusses the Tabard inn and its Host in Historians on Chaucer, edited by Stephen Rigby, with the assistance of Alastair Minnis, which is due to appear next month.

Copyright © The Times Literary Supplement Limited 2014.
The Times Literary Supplement Limited: 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1 9GF.
Registered in England. Company registration number: 935240. VAT no: GB 243 8054 69.

We hope you enjoy this free piece from the TLS, which is available every Thursday in print and via the TLS app. This week’s issue also features Tessa Hadley on adventures in reading, Nadia Atia on Baghdad and Rachel Polonsky on Malevich at Tate Modern. We also look at trust in politics, Thomas Nashe’s dog days, the rise of Afrikaner nationalism – and much more.

Sources: Taken 29 September 2014 from

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/ (front page blurb)
http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1462934.ece (article)

The above article has been translated into Estonian by Sonja Kulmala. You can find her translation at the following link:
http://www.teileshop.de/blog/2016/10/22/kirjandusliku-kultuuri-juhtiv-rahvusvaheline-foorum/ (22 October 2016)